As someone from Dundalk, I woke up on Wednesday to the shocking news of the horrific attacks that left one person dead and two others hospitalised. When acts of senseless violence occur, it is natural that people search for explanations; to make sense of the senseless. One of these explanations that is frequently proffered in the aftermath of such attacks is terrorism. In recent years across Europe and the rest of the world, terrorist attacks have become more low-tech to the point that knife attacks can constitute terrorism and in this regard only, the attacks that took place in Dundalk were somewhat redolent. It subsequently transpired, however, that Gardaí could find no link between this act and other Islamic extremist attacks in the world; i.e. no motive that would make this a terrorist attack could be identified.
What is terrorism anyway?
Terrorism is a very loaded term lacking an agreed definition. Legal definitions of terrorism are, generally speaking, not drafted solely for the state to have a condemnatory label at its disposal. Rather, they are—or they should be— linked to the perceived need for special counter-terrorist laws. Specific terrorist crimes, for example, tend to be different from ordinary crimes. They are offences created so that police do not have to wait for an attack to occur before they can intervene and prosecute. Rather, terrorist offences tend to be what are called inchoate offences: they are generally offences that criminalise an individual’s actions at the preparatory stage, before they can carry out their attack. In this way terrorist offences are drafted to allow police to ‘defend further up the field’, intervening before an attack happens. A legal definition of terrorism is necessary to do this. For example, it should help to distinguish the ordinary farmer who is buying fertiliser from the person who carries out the exact same act of buying fertiliser; however, their purpose is to manufacture a bomb.
However, when ‘terrorism’ is used in everyday discourse by people, the media or even politicians, they are generally not applying the legal definition of terrorism. Sometimes the term ‘terrorism’ may be used to try and make sense of the senseless. It may be used to describe political violence and, in particular, to de-legitimise certain forms of political violence. Other times, the motive for labelling something terrorism may be less benevolent.
The Reaction to the Dundalk Attack
Following yesterday’s horrific attacks in Dundalk, a large number of people took to Twitter to speculate that this was a terrorist attack based solely on the (false) belief that the attacker was from Syria. Some questionable media outlets such as TheLiberal.ie also jumped to this conclusion. Myself and others were then subjected to a barrage of abuse when we stressed caution in labelling this attack as terrorist-related. Many of those hurling the abuse and speculating that the attack was terrorism self-identified as Irish ‘ethno-nationalists’; i.e. they were far right ideologically with explicit racist beliefs as to who should be allowed live in the state. Their primary reason for conjecting that what happened in Dundalk was terrorism was the false rumour that the attacker was Syrian. The irony (and hypocrisy) of Irish people concluding that a person is a terrorist based solely on their nationality is particularly amplified given that the attack took place in Dundalk, a town acutely affected by the Troubles.
What this incident shows is that there are many groups which have a clear agenda when using the term ‘terrorism’. They use the term not to try and make sense of an attack or even to condemn it; rather, they label it as terrorism in order to exploit it to further their own poisonous ideology. One need only look to the UK to see that the rise of far-right extremism has gone hand-in-hand with the perceived increase in the threat from Islamic extremist terrorism.
What this incident also shows is that while Ireland has often been busy patting itself on the back for not seeing a rise in support for far-right anti-immigration parties as seen in other European states, there can be no room for complacency. On this note, Renua Ireland demanded that the Government recall the Dáil early in order to discuss the ‘public concern on the Dundalk stabbings’. This call came before Gardaí confirmed that no link to international terrorism could be established.
None of this detracts from the terribleness of what happened in Dundalk. A crime does not have to be an ‘act of terror’ for it to be condemned. Surely, the senseless killing of an innocent man going to work is an evil enough act in and of itself?
You can donate to the fund to help with the repatriation of Yosuke Sasaki’s body to Japan here.